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Global Encounters: Media and Cultural Transformation

Editor: Gitte Stald, Thomas Tufte
Publisher: UK: University of Luton Press, 2002
Review Published: December 2003

 REVIEW 1: Kevin Douglas Kuswa
 REVIEW 2: Radhika Seth
 REVIEW 3: Charles Ess

Another collection of articles about "globalization" has arrived, a swirling montage of academic analysis concerning recent changes in the ways and means humans communicate. Global Encounters, edited by Gitte Stald and Thomas Tufte, is a book that takes on changes in media and identity in order to add a better understanding of culture to the concept of globalization. The link between mediated identity and globalization that appears in almost all twelve of the book’s chapters is communication. The products of communication that are implicated in globalization include the internet, the cell phone, the satellite image, and cable. The processes of communication that are implicated in globalization include the rapid exchange of information, the inclusion and exclusion of various populations in the exchanges, and the coagulation/diffusion of culture and identity. In short, new products and processes of communication are changing human interactions across the globe. This does not mean a "causal link can be established between media uses and identity formation" (258), as Thomas Tufte notes in the introduction as well as in the concluding chapter, but we must continue to explore these connections if only to map avenues of response.

Is this a new insight? No, but the arrangement and emphasis in Global Encounters is new. The book adds a certain accent of specificity to theories of globalization as it moves through three parts: the first part maps the global imaginary and its associated differentiation; the second part traces global media and changing nodes of information; and the third part looks at specific identities and the tension between diaspora and diversity. The parts build upon one another, with part one offering three articles that help to introduce globalization as an effect of the clash between media and culture. Part two also offers three articles, but the trajectory is toward the specifics of "being minority" and negotiating the global media. Part three traverses six articles and ends the collection with an impressive array of case studies that cover a number of identity groups (young Danes, South African students, and "modern" women in India) and a number of communication technologies (local television, satellite television, mobile phones, and the internet). All told, the three parts are covering familiar territory, but doing so through layered examples and well-reasoned theory makes the collection a valuable contribution to the study of globalization and the media.

Exploring the articles themselves, Terje Rasmussen offers a representative chapter entitled "Internet as World Medium" in which he assesses what it means to refer to a globalized media. The concept of cyberspace becomes crucial here, as Rasmussen contends that the process of communication establishes the foundation for cyberspace despite inattention given to the "question of how the space of virtual communication relates to the communication of the social world" (85). Cyberspace, then, needs to be theorized through communication studies and the virtuality of discourse. The internet includes a level of interaction and choice not present in standard television, but the "autonomy" granted by the internet is still constituted through consumerism and other arrangements of capitalism despite (and because of) its ability to relate to its users on an individual level. In many ways, this individualization allows the messages of global media to more directly constitute subjectivity through the processes of discourse. Discourse, like cyberspace (and perhaps determinate of cyberspace), is virtual in that it is real and symbolic, material and figurative, physical and illusory. Discourse joins cyberspace as part of an imaginary -- a location both tangible and imagined.

The notion of the imaginary opens up globalization to theories of discourse, tying back to the theme of communication running through the book. Although simple, Rasmussen’s argument is profound: "Globalization, then, is a statement, and real as precisely that" (87). The association between globalization and discourse -- the notion that the details of globalization act like instances of language or units of speech (statements) -- emerges out of the book as an implied framework. Early on, in the "Introduction," Stald & Tufte make bold claims about the way globalization is resulting in a sweeping cultural transformation. They state that "cultural transformation . . . is occurring on a daily basis in the encounters with the mediated representations of the world" (2). They hint that this process involves the way identity is "articulated," but they do not fill in the missing warrant. In other words, they do not directly address the question: How does globalization translate into identity?

Only by working through the three parts of Global Encounters does the beginning of an answer to that question develop. Rasmussen highlights communication as the fluid between media and identity, but chapters by Ortiz, Strelitz, and Wildermuth open up more channels in the larger connection between globalization, culture, and communication. Renato Ortiz writes about cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity, starting his chapter with an interesting juxtaposition between anthropology, which reminds us of the struggle between cultural distinctness and cultural exclusion, and history, which reminds us that human civilization always changes over time. Bringing anthropology and history together leads Ortiz to the conundrum of modernity, an arrangement that depends on "historical situations" and that "has a differentiating movement that involves groups, social classes, genders and individuals" (58). To negotiate the process of modernity, according to Ortiz, requires turning away from a discourse of universality toward an active articulation of difference, or an "effective way of expression and realisation" (64).

Does a discourse of difference play out through the remainder of the book as a lens with which to view these various encounters with globalization and the media? Larry Strelitz answers in the affirmative in his complex account of a room at a school in South Africa called the "homeland" where students gather to watch television. This chapter is a good read because of its attention to the example at hand and its well-researched contentions. Different representations intersect in this room every evening as a number of students from "rural peasant or working class backgrounds" (151) come together to watch local black drama series such as Isidingo or Generations, or African-language news. Strelitz wants to downplay a "media-centric" approach to the construction of identity -- an extremely important position when studying globalization -- but he does note how different television programming can change the way these South African students relate to America, consumerism, and traditional South African culture. His observation is that the students begin to relate more critically to the messages of freedom and material abundance associated with America when they enter the university community. The values associated with American culture are slowly equated with the estrangement from "middle class culture experienced on campus" (170). Thus, the local programs such as Isidingo help to cement a traditional identity for these rural students, an identity in opposition to the excessive individualism and materialism conveyed by the global media.

Norbert Wildermuth's chapter also complements the collection, exploring the fragmented subjectivities of the "modern Indian woman" and the ways middle-class women in India accept and resist the bombardment of messages coming across the television. Wildermuth’s study approaches production and consumption in order to explain the two-way process of identity discourse. Family and middle-class values in India express distaste for certain aspects of televised popular culture. In response, the sources of these messages such as Zee TV respond with various compromises implicating nationalism and gender. The resulting "wholesome family dramas" are able to reach a larger audience in more influential ways by converting "outlined neo-conservative notions of a modern but contained female identity into corresponding media representations" (213). The tug-of-war between pre-existing traditions of womanhood and the packaging of an "acceptably emancipated and modern female consumer" generates a multitude of paradoxical subject-positions. Wildermuth concludes that television images in India play "a significant role in the propagation of a discursive formation which articulates a particular middle-class consumer identity" (214).

These are intriguing observations, but do they warrant ordering a copy of the collection? Is it thumbs up or down? Feel free to skip this book without developing a major hole in your understanding of globalization, but taking the time to work through it offers a big pay-off: an intensification of the link between global media, cultural (ex)change, and the significance of discourse in any account of identity and identification. So, the thumbs are up because the examples in this book are outstanding, the diversity of perspectives is refreshing, and the abstract does not overshadow the specific.

Kevin Douglas Kuswa:
Kevin Douglas Kuswa, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, received his PhD in Rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. He is now a Professor in the Rhetoric and Communication Studies Department at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. His recent publications cover the trope of Balkanization, the history of segregation and the suburb in America, and global media. He is presently teaching a course entitled "The Rhetoric of Terror/ism, (In)security, and the State."  <kkuswa@richmond.edu>

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